A car crash of an exhibition

“You seem to have started with the final act, my dear” Lucian Freud is said to have remarked on seeing Damian Hirst’s ‘A Thousand Years’ (1990) which he made a year after leaving Goldsmiths College of Art.

This artwork consists of two joined glass vitrines in which a life and death cycle is being played out. In one vitrine, maggots hatch into bluebottles, which then fly around to arrive in the adjacent vitrine where they are dispatched by an insect-o-cute machine after having had their last meal on the head of a rotting cow. It is a view of a life devoid of love or compassion and in its chilling intensity, a major work of 20th Century art.

A thousand Years (1990)


Hirst followed this up with probably his best-known work ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (1991). When it was first exhibited in Charles Saatchi’s large white gallery space, this iconic piece consisting of a shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde solution was a major statement from the leader of the newly christened Young British Artists. The version on display at the Tate Gallery retrospective is a chance to see the revised version remade after the demise of the original which had been poorly preserved. With these two works Damien Hirst’s reputation as a major artist was sealed. He was an artist who would deal with the biggest subjects of them all as Mortality and Death became his stock in trade. As if to compound that, an anagram of his name reads ‘Is Mr Death in’.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)


The retrospective of Hirst’s work currently at the Tate Gallery starts innocently enough, with work done as a student in a variety of Arte Povera, Conceptual and Minimalist styles. His very first dot painting is here, an expressionist forerunner to the later precisely executed dot paintings that would became his signature style. Here to is the first Medicine Cabinet, effectively a glass fronted cabinet containing the medicines that people fondly hope will either cure them or at least keep them alive. Hirst stall is beginning to be laid out – the dot paintings, the medical cabinets, the animals preserved in tanks of formaldehyde and multiple variations of those themes. As an artist Damien is looking to the example of Marcel Duchamp, the father of conceptual art for validation of the ‘ready made’ as art, to Andy Warhol the Pop artist, for his minimal aesthetic and factory production line methods and to Jeff Koons the one time commodities trader, who elevated Kitsch to the level of Fine Art.

Cematorium (1996)


Damien Hirst is mostly known for his Dot paintings. To date, Damien, or rather his assistants, have painted 1,500 paintings, not counting the prints and there is rumoured to be a million dot painting in progress that is expected to take many years to complete. The debate about the use of assistants will go on but perhaps it would be more honest to acknowledge the names of the artists, fabricators and craftsmen and what better place would have been than at the end of this revealing exhibition.

There are lots of dot paintings in this show, and lots of medicine cabinets where one each would have done. Hirst is clearly satisfying a demand for his work through serial reproduction. Ideas are mined endlessly and not necessarily to their benefit. Some themes are better than others. ‘Lullaby, the Seasons’ 2002 is one of his successes. It consists of a number of minimal highly polished cabinets filled with lines of pills, which have a very seductive yet sinister appeal. However the number of works on show with cigarette ends is just banal and the steel cabinets with surgical equipment obviously bought from a medical supply catalogue show the weakness of some of his ideas. As an installation artist, he is not convincing in his handling of space and the ‘In and out of love ‘ butterfly room where butterflies are raised in order to be stuck on wet canvases and the large scale ‘Pharmacy’ (1992) do not convince.

As the show progresses, the work becomes weaker and more embarrassing and the hovering beach ball entitled ‘Loving in a world of desire ‘ (1996) must take the prize for the worst work in the show although it runs a close second to “Crematorium’ (1996) an enormous ashtray of cigarette buts and ash. The cabinets, now platinum and gold are filled with artificial diamonds in a seeming celebration of footballers wives ‘bling ‘mentality. The dead butterfly’s wings are now artfully arranges by his assistants into mock stained glass windows and tedious canvases with portentous titles such as ‘ I Am Become Death , Shatterer of Worlds ‘(2006) when in fact it is only an artfully arranged decoration possibly for the Middle East market. Yet more fag- ends appear and this time there is a small shark in a stylish black tank. To complete the exhibition the final room, displays a white on white spot painting that resembles a design for a department store duvet cover and a pathetic white stuffed dove in a tank of formaldehyde solution that attempts to express some sort of maudlin religiosity. Then of course there is the Diamond skull ‘For the love of God’ (2007). A cast of a small human skull covered in real diamonds and reportedly worth 50 million quid. You have to queue up to see it sparkling in its darkened velvet lined box. The young artist who started out with so much promise has become the purveyor of expensive fancy goods and novelty items for the mega- rich.

This exhibition is not helpful to Damian Hirst’s reputation. It does him no favours. The rooms are crowded, the work badly shown and selected. He is at is best when he employs shock tactics and grand statements and a more careful selection of work would have shown him to be a better artist. Where is the Disciple series for example or the large vitrines that pays homage’s to his idol Francis Bacon? Instead it shows how his best work was done at the beginning of his career and then through repetition and over production for the market place, how he became the world richest artist. Meanwhile prepare to stand in line pay your money or book your tickets in advance for this flawed but must see car crash of a show.

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3 comments for “A car crash of an exhibition

  1. Dawn Finneran
    17 April 2012 at 9:25 am

    LOL
    This is how I thought the exhibition would be, I went on the curators talk and then a private viewing as part of the talk.
    I found the beach ball and ping pong ball pathetic but the rest was quite awe inspiring.
    The concepts behind them and the indepth thinking they produce is good – if you can see further than Hirsts reputation that is THIS IS SOMETHING I CANNOT BELIEVE I AM SAYING!!

    Medicine cabinets – filled with handmade reclica pills – I saw how attractive the shapes, colours and sizes were and presented this way with a mirror background which doubled the dosage as it were screamed of a sweet shop – two things in one and a message of childhood dangers and addiction to a beautifully crafted medicine. Lullaby for example gives us clues – we sing our children to sleep and the sleep side effects of pills. I also like how they were placed in colours which represented the seasons, I do not think he needed the seasons as part of the concept and within in his title because the colour arrangements look like science classification techniques which make the pill idea on the shelving stronger in relation to Dr Doom and Death.

    His golden work which was produced to make gold for Hirsts retirement fund is so attractive I stood for ages looking at the light playing on the ‘gems’ the colours and shapes the light made is beauty in the simpliest sense, even godly. You have to look beyond what you are presented with onto and into other levels.

    His ‘black’ room was set out in such a way it was almost like a tomb loved the light blue Hirst wallpaper which pushed forth the black sheep and the black sun – brilliantly staged!

    A tricky one – his work and his attitude affects people in different ways. I began by ‘poo pooing’ him and his works I still dislike his attitude but having researched his work and read much about him and seen the work together in this exhibition I thoroughly like the work – not all of it but most of it, in fact I am now certain after seeing this exhibition the direction I will want to take when I am a grown up artist! 🙂

  2. avis lane willan
    21 April 2012 at 8:40 am

    Thanks both of you for your comments on the exhibition. Damian Hirst will always provoke opinions- which makes him a successful artist. He has something to say and uses a very different language to communicate that. I enjoyed the scale of it and the butterfly room entrancing- how often do we get to be with so many in a confined space. The beachball I didn’t get at first- then I did- the joy, playfulness, fragility, round, bouncing love hovering uncertainly… got the whole vulnerability thing for me. And how desire affects love both within and desire for other things outside of it.

  3. Olivia Irvine
    22 April 2012 at 9:14 am

    I’ve just watched thevideo on Hirst, found on the Guardian website and would recommend it. I haven’t seen the show and am unlikely to be in London for a while.
    One thing about Hirst I find inspiring is the way he allows things to influence him. He acts on some experiences in a spontaneous way, not letting anything deter him. We probably all have great ideas that we muse over but often but let them wash over us or make excuses not to pursue them. He doesn’t and that’s the difference. He uses ideas like currency and money like an art material.

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